Hermit crab

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Hermit crab
Temporal range: Hettangian–Present
Calliactis and Dardanus 001.JPG
Dardanus calidus
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Crustacea
Class: Malacostraca
Order: Decapoda
Infraorder: Anomura
Superfamily: Paguroidea
Latreille, 1802

Hermit crabs are anomuran decapod crustaceans of the superfamily Paguroidea that have adapted to occupy empty scavenged mollusc shells to protect their fragile exoskeletons.[1][2][3] There are over 800 species of hermit crab, most of which possess an asymmetric abdomen concealed by a snug-fitting shell. Hermit crabs' soft (non-calcified) abdominal exoskeleton means they must occupy shelter produced by other organisms or risk being defenseless.

The strong association between hermit crabs and their shelters has significantly influenced their biology. Almost 800 species carry mobile shelters (most often calcified snail shells); this protective mobility contributes to the diversity and multitude of crustaceans found in almost all marine environments. In most species, development involves metamorphosis from symmetric, free-swimming larvae to morphologically asymmetric, benthic-dwelling, shell-seeking crabs. Such physiological and behavioral extremes facilitate a transition to a sheltered lifestyle, revealing the extensive evolutionary lengths that led to their superfamily success.

Biological description[edit]

A hermit crab emerges from its shell
Outside its shell, the soft, curved abdomen of hermit crabs, such as Pagurus bernhardus, is vulnerable.

Most species have long, spirally curved abdomens, which are soft, unlike the hard, calcified abdomens seen in related crustaceans. The vulnerable abdomen is protected from predators by a salvaged empty seashell carried by the hermit crab, into which its whole body can retract.[4] Most frequently, hermit crabs use the shells of sea snails (although the shells of bivalves and scaphopods and even hollow pieces of wood and stone are used by some species).[5] The tip of the hermit crab's abdomen is adapted to clasp strongly onto the columella of the snail shell.[6] Most hermit crabs are nocturnal.[citation needed]


Hermit crabs can be divided into two groups:[7]

Photo of four hermit crabs.
Four hermit crabs in an aquarium

Shells and shell competition[edit]

Underwater photo of a hermit crab and gastropod shell
Hermit crabs fighting over a shell
A hermit crab retracted into a shell of Acanthina punctulata and using its claws to block the entrance

As hermit crabs grow, they require larger shells. Since suitable intact gastropod shells are sometimes a limited resource, vigorous competition often occurs among hermit crabs for shells. The availability of empty shells at any given place depends on the relative abundance of gastropods and hermit crabs, matched for size. An equally important issue is the population of organisms that prey upon gastropods and leave the shells intact.[8] Hermit crabs kept together may fight or kill a competitor to gain access to the shell they favour. However, if the crabs vary significantly in size, the occurrence of fights over empty shells will decrease or remain nonexistent.[9] Hermit crabs with undersized shells cannot grow as fast as those with well-fitting shells, and are more likely to be eaten if they cannot retract completely into the shell.[10]

Several Hermit crabs on the beach at Amami Ōshima in Japan.

As the hermit crab grows in size, it must find a larger shell and abandon the previous one. Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, have been observed forming a vacancy chain to exchange shells.[9] When an individual crab finds a new empty shell it will leave its own shell and inspect the vacant shell for size. If the shell is found to be too large, the crab goes back to its own shell and then waits by the vacant shell for up to 8 hours. As new crabs arrive they also inspect the shell and, if it is too big, wait with the others, forming a group of up to 20 individuals, holding onto each other in a line from the largest to the smallest crab. As soon as a crab that is the right size for the vacant shell arrives and claims it—leaving its old shell vacant—all the crabs in the queue swiftly exchange shells in sequence, each one moving up to the next size.[11] Hermit crabs often "gang up" on one of their species with what they perceive to be a better shell, and pry its shell away from it before competing for it until one takes it over.[12]

There are cases when seashells are not available and hermit crabs will use alternatives such as tin cans, custom-made shells, or any other types of debris, which often proves fatal to the hermit crabs (as they can climb into, but not out of, slippery plastic debris).[13] This can even create a chain reaction of fatality, because a dead hermit crab will release a signal to tell others that a shell is available, luring more hermit crabs to their deaths.

For some larger marine species, supporting one or more sea anemones on the shell can scare away predators. The sea anemone benefits, because it is in position to consume fragments of the hermit crab's meals. Other very close symbiotic relationships are known from encrusting bryozoans and hermit crabs forming bryoliths.[14]

Development and reproduction[edit]

Hermit crab species range in size and shape, from species with a carapace only a few millimetres long to Coenobita brevimanus, which can live 12–70 years and can approach the size of a coconut. The shell-less hermit crab Birgus latro (coconut crab) is the world's largest terrestrial invertebrate.[15]

The young develop in stages, with the first two (the nauplius and protozoea) occurring inside the egg. Most hermit crab larvae hatch at the third stage, the zoea. In this larval stage, the crab has several long spines, a long, narrow abdomen, and large fringed antennae. Several zoeal moults are followed by the final larval stage, the megalopa.[16]

Hermit crabs are often seen as a ‘throwaway pet’ that would live only a few months, but species such as Coenobita clypeatus have a 20-year lifespan if properly cared for,[17] and some have lived longer than 32 years.[18][19]


Hermit crabs are more closely related to squat lobsters and porcelain crabs than they are to true crabs (Brachyura). However, the relationship of king crabs to the rest of Paguroidea has been a highly contentious topic. Many studies based on their physical characteristics, genetic information, and combined data demonstrate the longstanding hypothesis that the king crabs in the family Lithodidae are derived hermit crabs descended from pagurids and should be classified as a family within Paguroidea.[20][21][22][23] The molecular data has disproven an alternate view based on morphological arguments that the Lithodidae (king crabs) nest with the Hapalogastridae in a separate superfamily, Lithodoidea.[24][25] Eight families are formally recognized in the superfamily Paguroidea,[1] containing around 1100 species in total in 120 genera.[2]

Hermit crab, Chabahar, Iran

Fossil record[edit]

The fossil record of in situ hermit crabs using gastropod shells stretches back to the Late Cretaceous. Before that time, at least some hermit crabs used ammonites' shells instead, as shown by a specimen of Palaeopagurus vandenengeli from the Speeton Clay, Yorkshire, UK from the Lower Cretaceous,[28] as well as from the Upper Jurassic of Russia.[29] The oldest record of the superfamily extends back to the earliest part of the Jurassic, with the oldest species being Schobertella hoelderi from the late Hettangian of Germany.[30]


  1. ^ a b Patsy McLaughlin & Michael Türkay (2011). Lemaitre R, McLaughlin P (eds.). "Paguroidea". World Paguroidea & Lomisoidea database. World Register of Marine Species. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
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